Rick Hanson [ Mindset ] I’m not here to push Buddhism or any ism, but it’s a source of great insight into actually how the mind works, as well as psychology and neurology. That said, I think it’s humbling and appropriate to appreciate the fact that there’s really, literally, so little we actually know about the mind and the brain these days.
No one really still knows yet what a thought actually is, even though we’re going to be talking about them a fair amount.
Prelims out of the way, let’s get into your amazing brain. First, some basic specs. It’s mind boggling for me endlessly to appreciate really how complicated the brain is.
In particular I want to focus, as an overarching theme, on the fundamental idea of using the mind to change the brain for the better , so that it benefits the mind and, in widening ripples, all beings.
To do that we want to get, I want to get first at some basic information about the brain and about what I call self-directed neuroplasticity .
The fundamental idea that mental activity sculpts neural structure , which gives us opportunities increasingly to intervene actually inside the black box of the brain.
That’s important because there’s a fundamental problem in that the brain through biological evolution is highly inclined toward noting and responding to negative experiences, and in particular has a kind of deeply engrained threat reactivity that’s then increased by personal history as well cultural and political factors that leads to what I call “ Paper Tiger Paranoia. ”
Last I’m going to talk about what to do about that, with self-directed neuroplasticity, in terms of coming back to the natural state of the brain which is really the optimal brain.
So I thought, “This is my opportunity at Google, I’m going to take a big swing and hopefully hit the ball.”
So, let’s dive in.
One way to think about this is purely abstractly, fine. But a more powerful way to think about it is that what we’re talking about is happening right here, right now, right between your ears.
Okay. So here we go.
Back to where we were, the technical specs of the brain .
It’s remarkable to realize that in roughly three pounds , about five cups worth of tissue, are about one point one trillion cells, 100 billion neurons, a trillion support cells . They’re connected with each other in a variety of ways. A typical neuron connects with about 5,000 other neurons making about 500 trillion synapses . Lots of information moves through the brain and the nervous system. The brain moves information around like a heart moves blood around , in effect.
A fair amount of, of the interaction between neurons is just noise.
Noisy networks as you all probably know are optimized for signal transmission, but that said, out of all the noise there are so many signals going on in the brain that in the time it takes roughly to take a single breath, roughly a quadrillion messages moved around inside your head.
The brain is literally the most complex object yet known to science; more complex than an exploding star; more complex even than the American economy.
Here’s a schematic neuron. You can see the receiving end at the left as you face the screen. The output end is at the right hand side. It is like a little on-off switch. Neurons are continually firing. A neuron that’s not firing is a dead neuron. And basically the summation moment to moment of roughly 5,000 inputs every few milliseconds determines whether the neuron will fire.
So, I want to talk now about two critical words that are really easy to lose. This is probably the most intellectually nuanced slide I’ve got.
I want to talk about the mind and the brain. I define the mind as the flows of information through the nervous system . The nervous system has its headquarters in the brain.
Information is represented by the nervous system much like a computer hard drive represents information, or sound waves right now are representing information; radio waves represent information.
It’s the classic and familiar distinction between hardware and software.
In essence, therefore, apart from hypothetical transcendental factors, the mind is what the brain does. No brain, no mind.
Now, I say the brain is the necessary condition for the mind; it’s also a proximally sufficient condition. It’s only proximally sufficient because the brain is embedded in our nervous system, embedded in a body, and embedded in culture and both here and now and across time.
So, to talk about the brain as the, the brain as the local, locally, it’s the necessary condition and it’s the locally sufficient condition for the mind.
And as we’ll see, the brain also depends on the mind.
The way to understand the brain is really in a context of biological evolution. The nervous system is about 600 million years old . As you know life came on the planet about three and half billion years ago. Multi-celled creatures arose around 650 million years ago and they were complicated enough to need some method of communication between their sensing organs and their motor systems around 600 million years ago, thus the beginning of the brain.
In terms of vertebrates it essentially evolved more or less in the way you see. This is a schematic picture. The inner reptile brain and there’s the squirrel monkey brain and there’s the early stone tool making hominid brain, the cave man brain and the modern brain.
The modern brain is essentially identical with the cave man brain.
How many of you by the way have blue eyes or green eyes? Okay. You are mutants. In other words, until about 5,000 years ago nobody had blue eyes. I mean biological evolution is continuing. The first blue eyed person was identified probably about 5,000 years ago; probably around Denmark and then blue eyes have proliferated around the world for various reasons.
But evolution is continuing.
So, in terms of that evolution the brain developed three fundamental goal-directed systems . You could say they’re motivational systems; the why we do stuff.
The first system was the avoid system: withdraw from threats; freeze; back up; get away.
On top of that then with roughly invertebrates, crustaceans, lizards and so forth, and fish in the sea, a more sophisticated approaching system developed to pursue opportunities.
And then with birds and mammals and then primates and particularly humans, the attach system developed. That’s the social system in the brain that forms connections and bonds with us and seeks proximity, closeness, intimacy, love, and belonging.
Although the vagus nerve as it evolved loosely matched to these three systems, they’re anatomically blurred in their distinctions in the brain and they intertwine with each other and any single system can use two others for its ends.
This typology by the way: approach, avoid, attach or avoid, approach, attach is one we’ll be returning to again and again. And it’s a really useful way to think about how people are motivated and also think about how suffering and dysfunction and harm arise in terms of each one of those three systems.
And also, on the other hand, how happiness, benevolence, and helpfulness arise in a different mode of action in each one of those three systems.
So, love and the brain. It’s interesting to realize and this is what’s called the social brain theory, that probably the primary driver of evolution of the brain in the last hundred million years has been social capabilities or love broadly defined.
For example, reptiles and fish approach and avoid, they don’t attach, right? They have their babies, they swim away, if the babies are still there a few hours later they’ll eat them, in most species. Whereas birds and mammals do raise their young and often form para-bonds at least temporarily.
It’s interesting that the brain developed in three major stages driven really by the reproductive advantages, which is the engine of biological evolution of social skills, if you will.
The first stage was with birds and mammals. They’ve got bigger brains per body weight than reptiles and fish do because the quote unquote “computational requirements” of raising young and picking a partner require a bigger brain.
Similarly, at the next stage of development, there is a correlation between the size and complexity of the social group of a primate species and the size of the cerebral cortex in proportion to body weight.
In other words, the grooming, the hierarchies, who’s up, who’s down, who’s alpha, who’s beta, how can I still get some if I’m beta, the coalitions and all the rest of that. Right? You’ve got to have a pretty big brain.
And then last, since the first hominids began making stone tools around two and a half million years ago, the brain has tripled in size. They were smart enough to make stone tools. How many here can make a stone tool? I can’t make a stone tool. I don’t know, but they could do. Ah, you maybe could? That’s good. Most people don’t raise their hand when I ask them that question.
That’s a good one.
Yet the build out of the brain has been primarily devoted to social capacities: language, cooperative planning, empathy, the presentation of self, both authentically and with artful deception and all the rest of that has been much of what the volume of the brain, that’s as I said tripled, the other two-thirds is devoted to.
Interestingly, for babies or humans to have a bigger brain there’s a physical limit on how big the brain can be in a newborn and still enable its mother to walk upright.
And so you start hitting a limit there. Most species, primate species, there’s basically a two-to-one ratio between the volume of the brain at birth and how big it eventually gets. The human brain is probably about a four-fold maybe even a five-fold increase; to do that we needed a longer childhood. To have a longer childhood with a very vulnerable infant you needed to develop bonds between mothers and infants and also bring fathers into the mix.
And also the band itself because it quote unquote “takes a village to raise a child.”
And those requirements helped drive the evolution of the social capabilities and inclinations that would enable that to occur, which then enabled bigger brains. And the advantages of those bigger brains drove then increasing social capacities and here we are today.
So, three facts about the brain in terms of self-directed neuroplasticity.
So, first fact about the brain: as the brain changes, the mind changes; in good ways and bad. The left is a good slide hopefully, caffeine, sugar, pleasure; right slide, a concussion.
The second fact about the brain is that as the mind changes, the brain changes. This is a critically important fact. In other words, immaterial mental activity, the movement of information through this hardware substrate maps to material neural activity that produces temporary changes as well as lasting ones.
Temporary changes include alterations in brain waves, increased consumption of supplies like oxygen and glucose, ebbs and flows of neurochemicals like serotonin, dopamine, other neurotransmitters and so forth.
And I’m going to show you some slides of temporary, fleeting changes in the structures of the brain or brain activity that mapped to mental activity.
This is a slide of someone who’s head’s been kind of cut this way and that’s the caudate nucleus lit up because it’s consuming more oxygen. It’s a part of the brain that’s involved in the rewards center and it activates in this particular study when college sophomores who are absolutely in love are shown a picture of their sweetheart.
Male and female they both get a major light up in the caudate nucleus.
I’m going to go through by the way a number of examples here. It’s fascinating to get into some of the detail, but I’m going to keep us moving along.
Here’s another slide that looks at envy and schadenfreude. This is a study done in Japan with college students who were told about someone very much like them who was spectacularly more successful.
And in the scanner what arose inside them were activations in the physical pain network, in other words, emotional pain much as evolution. Evolution’s a big pludge, essentially. It just uses lower systems and adapts them to higher purposes.
So, social pain uses physical pain as a fundamental basis .
Similarly, social pleasure uses physical pleasure systems.
So, in phase one, they told these students that there is this spectacularly wonderful person who made them really look horrible; envy, physical pain.
And then in phase two of the study they were told that this person encountered a humiliating downfall, schadenfreude, pleasure at the suffering of others and the pleasure network was activated.
As you can see an example in this study. Here we go.
Here’s another one. This is self in the brain. We were talking about this at lunch. These, in this study basically it’s kind of hard to see maybe, but maybe not. The squares, the diamonds, and the crosses have to do with different activations of self-related activity in the brain.
For example, recognizing yourself in a photograph distinct from others or naming a personal memory like what I did last summer, or making a difficult choice. What’s interesting in this picture is to see how widely distributed self-related activations are throughout the brain.
There’s no part of the brain that’s special for I, for me, for ego, for mine.
It’s widely distributive which has some pretty profound implications.
How about consciousness? The big Magilla, right? Well again, when a person is conscious or is entering different kinds of consciousness, different parts of the brain are activated. And if you mess with those parts of the brain like intersect at the linkages between the thalamus which is the central relay station in the brain and the cerebral cortex, you anesthetize somebody.
On the other hand, as consciousness changes or activates, it uses different parts of the brain. Something as ineffable as awareness alters or engages neural activity .
Now, let’s talk about meditation.
This is a slide, this is this, in this shot the head is cut this way, if you will. Of a Buddhist mediator doing compassion meditation, and the part of the brain that is activated there is called the anterior which means frontal cingulate cortex which is a part of the brain that’s involved in the executive control of attention; staying concentrated and attentive.
It also is an area where the thinking and feeling are brought together as well.
So, it’s interesting to realize that when this person is in the scanner doing a kind of spacious, infinite, boundless compassion meditation, that this part of the brain is activated.
Interestingly, this is a slide of Christian nuns in prayer who are doing a very different kind of spiritual activity which activates some of the same region, ACC in the upper left hand slide, left ACC, anterior cingulate cortex. It lights up because they’re focusing their attention, but also interestingly they got activation in the insula, which is a part of the brain that tracks the interior sensations of the body, which suggests that for these nuns who are women, of course, doing that particular practice it had a very embodied quality, which kind of makes sense intuitively.
And also they got an activation in the caudate nucleus.
Again, it was very emotionally rewarding to bring to mind their most profound spiritual experience.
Now I want to talk about lasting changes in the brain because those were all temporary, fleeting changes, mostly having to do with which part of the brain uses metabolic supplies.
Mental activity shapes neural structure. It leaves lasting residues behind. This is the essence of what’s called neuroplasticity. It does it in a variety of ways, I listed some of the mechanisms of action. Busy regions get more blood flow over time. Existing synapses get strengthened .
You also get interestingly altered gene expression. That’s epigenetics. In other words, ineffable mental activity can alter the expression of strips of atoms inside this long chain of DNA.
Right, for example people who routinely activate relaxation training get improved gene expression of the portions of DNA that down regulate the stress response .
Isn’t that kind of amazing?
To think that doing this long, deep breathing or going to one of Ming’s classes is actually going to alter the expression of this strip of atoms inside some molecules somewhere.
That just is pretty far out.
Classically there a line from the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words when neural circuits or even individual neurons start associating with each other the connections between them are strengthened.
So, this has a number of implications and I want to show you a slide here of some of the effects of this. This was a study that was done on Buddhists meditators taking a look at people in terms of years of practice and looking at changes in neural structure.
In this particular study they found that people who had significant long term practice, which has probably amounted to 20 to 40 minutes most days, in the real world of Western practitioners, they actually had thicker cortical tissues in two key regions.
One is the insula, that’s number one, where they’re tuning into their body and their deep emotions and self awareness in general.
And also area number two is the executive portions of the prefrontal cortex that have to do with controlling attention.
The third region is the sensory motor strip where they were tracking their body sensations.
The interesting other finding is seen in the lower right hand graph where the blue circles were compared to the red squares. Red squares are the control group. They experienced what’s called cortical thinning with aging, normal cortical thinning.
People lose probably by the time they’re 80 about three to five percent of cortical mass.
But the people who routinely used those regions, those are the blue circles, did not lose cortical tissue in those regions as a function of using it and not losing it.
There are other examples. Some of them are quite down to earth. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to London. It’s a spaghetti snarl of streets. Taxi cab drivers who have to memorize the streets of London have a thicker hippocampus at the end of their training than they did at the beginning. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that’s involved in visual, spatial memory.
Pianists who work routinely with certain kinds of movements have thicker motor cortices in the parts that control fine motor regions.
In one study I read it’s very interesting. They took two groups of skilled pianists and they had them practice a certain kind of song or piece that involved certain specific motor movements. And then they divided the group and they had one group do it like 10 minutes every day and the other group just imagine doing it 10 minutes every day. And each group had roughly equivalent build out of neural structure.
So, some perspectives here. Marvin Minsky, one of my favorites, probably well know here, probably of godfather of cognitive science, Society of Mind, a great book. Anyway you can see here he’s saying a principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.
I want to offer a bit of perspective on this which is that neuroplasticity is not breaking news.
It gets talked about a lot as if it’s some new finding. No, it’s been understood for a hundred years or more that obviously mental activity had to change brain structure.
What else is learning? The news is in the details.
Most neuroplasticity is not dramatic; it’s very, very incremental. Like do, can you remember what you had for breakfast or didn’t have for breakfast this morning?
Now what’s the capital of Nebraska? Right? That’s neuroplasticity. It’s pretty hum-drum.
It’s interesting though that even though neurons that fire together are wired together throughout the nervous system; the ones that really wire together do so in the field of awareness.
That means that residues of conscious experience are continually sifting into neural structure .
Implicit memory is mainly where they do this. This is not memory for specific events, that’s explicit memory for recollections. This is the internal felt sense of what it feels like to be me, action, dispositions, biases , emotional residues, and all the rest.
The point of all this really the take away, for me there are half a dozen key take aways and this is one of them, is to really be a lot more thoughtful about what I experience moment to moment . Because whatever those neurons are doing, for better or worse, they’re wiring together.
Dwell in one’s experience on themes of stress or tension or frustration or imminent failure or self doubt and all the rest of that, guess what, we’re building neural structures of pessimism, depression, anxiety, lack of confidence, insecurity, and inadequacy, self-criticism, etc.
On the other hand, rest experience and cultivate experiences that have a certain ease to them, a certain relaxation; never be more than 100 feet away from food, things like that. That’s going to cultivate neural structures that promote optimism, resilience, a positive mood, confidence, a willingness to reach high and take big risks.
Our experience really, really matters.
Much of it is in the background. People don’t really know what they’re experiencing. That’s why mindful, self-awareness is so critical or as Ming says, “Searching inside yourself.”
I’m really happy I was able to get that line in here.
As I was saying earlier, most people are not very good at mindful attention. Attention is the preeminent way to build neural structure. It’s like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner. It illuminates what it rests upon and then shloop sucks it into the brain.
But for most people that spot light and vacuum cleaner is very skittery. They can’t rest it and keep it at some place where they want to keep it or they can’t move it very readily if they’re getting sucked into obsessive ruminating, right?
Just kind of going over and over and over again about some technical problem or some personally upsetting experience.
That’s why as William James said, the father really of American psychology, “The education of attention would be an education par excellence.”
So now what are we going to do with this mindful self awareness, with the idea of self directed neuroplasticity?
It’s the fundamental idea that we can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better .
It was always understood that if people did mental activity A they would get mental result C and then it was increasingly understood during the last hundred years that somehow mental activity A produced mental result C via the black box B of the brain.
But nobody knew how the black box worked.
Increasingly though with these modern technologies that can peer inside the living, active brain non-invasively we are now getting clearer and clearer about the circuitry, about the levers, the dials, the buttons, the dynamics inside the black box so that it’s increasingly possible to do reverse engineering .
In other words, to identify what is the neural substrate in the black box of optimal states of functioning, happiness, relationship, stress relief, and all the rest of that and then use mental activity alone. Not medication, not electroshock treatment, but mental activity alone to target those neural substrates and build them out in increasingly skillful ways.
That’s the opportunity. And by the way, it’s an historically unprecedented one.
The knowledge about the brain has essentially doubled in the last 20 years. I mean, we live in an historically extraordinary time for many reasons, this is certainly one of them. And it’s also historically unprecedented in the coming together of those three circles that I talked about previously: psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice; the contemplatives being the Olympic athletes of mental training for millennia.
And so I’m really excited about this. We’re just at the beginning of it all. I think modern neuroscience is roughly where biology and medicine was about 100 years after the invention of the microscope, which is to say about 1720.
Where is it going to be in 300 years?
Let’s talk about some of the challenges now. What are we going to do with this self-directed neuroplasticity?
We’ve got to deal with the negativity bias .
This is a really, really, critically important slide. In other words, in our evolutionary history we had to track carrots and sticks, right? Approach carrots, avoid sticks. That’s really important.
But for survival purposes in very harsh frequently lethal environments, sticks are more salient than carrots. In other words, if you miss a carrot today you’ll probably get a chance at one tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today — [claps hands together] whap. No more carrots forever.
So, the brain responded because Mother Nature is a harsh teacher. Whatever confers reproductive advantages, that’s what gets built out in the brain.
So there are number of ways this is done. I’ve listed just a few. For example, the amygdala which is the alarm center of the brain is primed to flag negative events. Probably about two-thirds or more of its cells are dedicated processors if you will for negative information or potentially negative information.
And the amygdala and hippocampus are very close to each other. The hippocampus does visual spatial memory but more broadly it does memory for context, rapidly flag anything that’s remotely negative, store it, and retrieve it on a fast track.
The bottom line is that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones , unless it’s a million dollar moment.
So, in effect all those three systems: avoid, approach, attach; the avoid system is very fast in that reptilian brain if you will, and it routinely hijacks the approach and attach systems and puts them to its bidding.
And therefore, as a result, in the title of a very famous paper, Bad Is Stronger Than Good.
By the way, I’m going to post these slides on my Website and you’ll be able to access them if want and at the end of them are a bunch of excellent books as well as a number of papers and the references for this presentation.
What are some examples of bad being stronger than good?
In relationships on the average it takes about five positive interactions to even out a single negative one.
Alright, what’s the history of the last three days in your intimate relationships, with family members, lovers, or children? it’s quite cautionary to think about that.
Or alternately people will do much more to avoid losing a loss than getting an equivalent gain. In order words, people will work harder or they’ll put up with more electrical shock to avoid losing a hundred bucks you gave them in an experiment than they’ll work hard to get a hundred bucks you put on the table that they gotta fight for.
Or last, it’s really easy to make people feel helpless.
In dog studies, for example, who have a limbic system and emotional system very much like our own, you can train a dog in helplessness in about five tries. Five cycles where bad things happen that they have zero control over, roughly you can train them in helplessness and then it takes dozens even a hundred or more trials to untrain them.
And the parallels for human beings are much the same.
That’s why I think it’s really important to pay a lot of attention to feeling helpless and a sense of futility and to work really hard to not feel that way. And if nothing else redefine the game into one you can actually win at, where you actually do have efficacy.
Now on the, this next question naturally arises here: yeah, but isn’t there some good with negative experiences? Well sure, okay. Remorse keeps us kind of on the path of virtue; sorrow opens the heart; negative experiences can increase resilience and all the rest.
But walk down downtown or walk around this campus which is a pretty rarefied environment, look at faces, look at my face. You can see the suffering in faces.
Is there any shortage of negative experiences in the world?
Is anyone here; would you like more negative experiences? We could give you some of ours. Any volunteers? I’ve never had a volunteer yet who’d like more negative experiences. So what are we going to do about this?
Now, negative experiences it’s important to realize have significant mental and physical health consequences .
I’ll just zip through this slide, I won’t get into the detail of it, but chronic stress is one of the main results. Because when we’re upset our stress response systems are activated. Getting angry, even just irritated, getting nervous about something, feeling depressed, feeling ashamed or inadequate or alarmed in any way, shape, or form triggers the fight/flight response systems through the sympathetic nervous system and HPAA stands for hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis ; the endocrine system in other words, because the nervous system and the endocrine system work together in terms of stress response.
Chronic stress is the enemy particularly for people who are interested in living past 35. In order words, unlike our great, great grandparents in the cave man days, most of us want to live past 35. What kind of life are we going to have the slowly accumulating impacts of chronic stress were pretty irrelevant on the Serengeti, three, five, one millions years ago, but they’re very relevant today in modern times.
Okay. So, how would you like to do something experiential for a minute or two, get out of this head stuff for a second? So, now that I gave you the bad news and I’m going to give you more bad news in a minute, I want to talk about self-compassion for a moment.
This is a hot area of research.
A lot of the benefits of self-esteem actually boil down to self-compassion. Arguably self-compassion’s more powerful, partly because it’s so emotional. Self-compassion is not self-pity, it’s not wallowing, it’s taking a moment and it’s usually typically less than 10 seconds to just have a sense of, “Ow, that hurts. This sucks. That doesn’t feel good. I wish it was better. Eh, shoo, pause then suck it up and move on, right?
But first do that self-compassion phase.
And people just suck it up and move on without having done self-compassion first they haven’t fueled themselves in a deep way.
Now self-compassion’s actually quite hard for many people. So, as a little example of this reverse engineering idea I talked about earlier, I’ve thought through what are things that activate the neural substrates of compassion so that people can do self-compassion who may find it difficult.
And that’s in those three bullets right there.
So, I’ll do it right now. This is private. You don’t have to do it. You can think about anything else. You could really even get involved in self-criticism and self-loathing, but that’s really up to you.
Okay, so first step bring to mind a sense of being cared about by somebody.
Could be a pet, a grandparent, someone in your life today, a spirit entity, a group of people, just the felt sense. What’s it feel like to feel cared about?
Second and you can go at your own pace or not do this at all.
Bring to mind also someone that you naturally feel compassion for. In order words you naturally wish that they not suffer. And you have an attitude of tender concern. Maybe a child, a dear friend, relative, a group of people, starving refugees somewhere, whatever.
Third step, this is a mindfulness practice now, sink into the experience of compassion in your body. What’s it feel like?
Stay present with it.
And then come from that embodied felt sense of compassion to yourself. With the sense of the ways in which life is hard, it’s not perfect, you might combine it with some verbal inner language like, “You know may I feel better, may I feel better about this thing, may it go better for me with that man or woman in my life, may I not suffer.”
Okay, great. I guarantee you, if you did it, you let out neural circuits of self-compassion and every time you do this it doesn’t build much structure but it builds a little bit of structure. And if you do it routinely over time those neurons fire together, therefore they wire together and you’re building the neural substrates of self-compassion.
Alright. So, now let’s get into some more bad news.
I want to talk here about threat reactivity and Paper Tiger Paranoia. If you think about it there are two major mistakes we can make in life. We, on the one hand we can think there is a tiger in the bushes when there isn’t one. Okay?
On the other hand, we can think there’s no tiger in bushes and its all fine, but there really is one about to pounce.
Now, we evolved to make the first mistake a hundred times, ten thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once because that’s how you stop having gene copies, alright?
This evolutionary tendency which is deeply ingrained in people to be threat reactive is then intensified by temperament; some people are more anxious than others. Then life happens, personal history. Then you have culture and then you have political manipulation.
It’s a classic story obviously throughout human history to build up a sense of external threat or even internal threat and on the basis of that get more compliance from the populace.
I mean that story’s been told a thousand times or more in human history.
This threat reactivity happens at the individual level, happens inside me, happens inside you, it happens between people like in a relationship, within a family; happens at the level of organizations.
It’s interesting to think about how that may or may not be happening at Google and how you’ve taken wise steps here to stop it from happening.
And it obviously happens at the national level and the international level; the level between nations in the world all together.
This has a lot of implications, really, if you think about the current moment in world history.
What are some of the results of this threat reactivity, both at the individual, organizational, and national level? First, initial appraisals are mistaken. There’s a tendency to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities and underestimate resources either for coping with threats or for capturing opportunities .
We tend to update these appraisals with information that selectively confirms them and we tend to through the mechanisms of what’s called cognitive dissonance, we tend to ignore, devalue, or alter information that doesn’t fit these pictures.
Thus we end up with views of ourselves, other people, and the world, and the future and the past that are ignorant, selective, and distorted.
Any comments or questions so far?
That’s the bad news. Now, the good news.
Actually there’s more bad news, I apologize. I turned the page too quickly, my mistake. I was eager to get on.
So I thought to myself, “What’s a short list in one slide of the major costs of threat reactivity.” You could probably add a few items to this list with a little thought.
For one, feeling threatened feels bad. As soon as we feel threatened activates the stress response system. We start getting stress hormones. We start focusing around the threat and with all the consequences I talked about before.
Feeling over threatened makes people over invest in threat protection and not invest in things like raising kids or schooling or building infrastructure or taking long, making long term plans.
Then you’ve got the story of the boy who cried “Tiger.” In other words, if people feel flooded with threats that are actually not real or, or are overstated or are easily managed by one thing or another, it’s easy to miss the needle in the haystack of the actual threat.
That’s really important to think about.
I think that’s one of the things that’s happened with things like global warming, people are so caught up in this endless list of murders on the evening news and a sense of global threat all-all around us, and that they miss long term things that are actually going to very consequential .
If we act when we’re threatened we tend to overreact; that creates cycles in which other people feel threatened and confirm our worst fears .
The approach system gets inhibited when people feel threatened, when the avoid system activates so we tend to not pursue opportunities or we play small, lose our nerve, or give up too quickly.
And then the approach system is, pardon me, the attach system is put in the service of threats; people tend to really bond with us; they increase their sense of fear and anger toward them; and they put up with more mistreatment within us to “protect me, protect me.” Strong father figure if you will, from them out there about to get me.
Obviously threat reactivity, and you can think of it on the global scale or even inside this country, red state, blue state, or even more locally in terms of different groups of us’s and thems.
Threat reactivity is a major source of prejudice, oppression, and war.
And if we want to make this world a better place helping people see through Paper Tiger Paranoia is a fundamentally profound and powerful way to do that.
And my little hope is that Google will in some ways help that happen.
So, now let’s talk about the optimal brain.
Let’s talk about how to deal with this kind of Paper Tiger Paranoia. And these, by the way, are practices and tools you can use in your own personal life and I’m going to talk about them.
So, think about reverse engineering. What’s the state of the brain in peak performance modes, peek productivity?
Or in a state, of let’s say self actualization? Or enlightenment or close to it?
Clearly there have been many people throughout human history that have been in these states. Many of us in this room, probably everybody in this room has gotten into that zone at one time or another.
What in the world could be happening in the brain when a person is in that zone?
Well the home base of the human brain which alas we are so, so easily driven from is characterized by — I call them the four C’s: calm, contented, caring, and creative .
And you can see how calm, contented, and caring map to the three systems, right? Avoid, approach, and attach, and creative, generative. People are generative.
Obviously, it’s extraordinarily generative here.
People are generative in particular when they go into the zone of calm, contented, and caring. This is the brain in its natural; let’s call it a responsive mode.
It’s not offline; it’s not anesthetized; it’s engaged in the world, it’s embodied and it’s enactive . It’s continually leaning forward into the future, but it does so in a particular mode of operation.
To look at it in a schematic you can see this triangle here in which the three systems, and by the way, this graphic comes from a little earlier form of this material in which I called the attach system “affiliation system.” It can see the way in which the brain operates; your brain, my brain operates, our brains operate when we’re in this natural state.
The problem though is that to survive we leave home.
In other words, on a hair trigger Mother Nature has given us the capability of activating any one of these three systems or all three of them in concert in a different kind of mode. Call it a reactive mode that then drives us from home.
It’s a kind of inner homelessness.
In other words, when people feel threatened or harm they’re in the reactive mode. When they can’t attain important goals, they’re frustrated or disappointed, reactive mode. When they feel isolated, abandoned, devalued, they’re not getting the healthy normal narcissistic supplies they need, when they feel left out, dissed, shunned, and so forth that also triggers this reactive mode.
And it too has a number of consequences.
So here’s a little slide that summarizes that.
So those are the choices really, reactive mode which is the ordinary experience. Look at the front page, it’s all reactive mode. Watch the evening news, mostly reactive mode. A lot of life. Think about dealing with some issue with an intimate, a friend, a partner, a family member. As they say in the spiritual biz, “Think you’re enlightened? Go visit your parents for the holidays.”
What’s it like in the real world?
What’s it like in traffic when someone flips you off? What’s it like when you, the person you like least as a political figure is yapping away on the evening news? What happens then?
We easily get triggered into this reactive mode.
So now, what to do about it; how to come home. How to recover the fundamental natural responsive mode of the brain right in the middle of the trenches; not in a cave in Tibet ; not in a monastery, but in daily life one step at a time, one breath at a time.
As the Tibetans say, “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.”
So how can each one of us take care of the minutes in our own life or help others take care of the minutes in their lives, so that year, so that the years will get better and better for this planet?
Well, first I want to talk about three fundamental pillars of practice that show up in contemplative traditions as well as in Western psychology: mindfulness, virtue, and wisdom.
And by different terms you see these again and again and again and I think that’s because they map to three central functions arguably the three central functions of the nervous system which is to say receiving and learning; regulating and prioritizing which map very closely to mindfulness, virtue and wisdom.
And which also map to the three fundamental phases of any kind of personal growth or emotional healing which is to say, “Open up to it. Experience it. Be with it. Be mindful of it.”
Second phase at the just right moment, help it move along, release that negative stuff.
And then third phase when there’s a space there replace it with something better.
Or in six words, “Let be, let go, let in.”
And the reason I think that these fundamental pillars of practice are found again and again, including in traditions that were certainly pre-technical, is because they map so closely to the universal human nervous system.
As a take away point at the bottom, mindfulness is vital but it’s not enough .
Mindfulness needs to be matched with virtue, with values, and with wisdom. Some fundamental understanding; somebody who wants to find wisdom always asks, giving up a lesser pleasure for a greater one. I mean it’s that clarity about what is the greater good here that I’m going to sacrifice this lesser pleasure for.
I mean that’s-that’s wisdom.
Additionally, I want to talk, there’s some general factors for the responsive mode that I just want to call to your attention here.
If you want to drop your brain into its natural state of calm, contented, caring, and creative, self-compassion, getting on your own side. So many people are not on their own side. In other words they’re not for themselves.
It’s so interesting to think about it.
That’s a critical moment to actually say, “No. How it feels to be me matters. My brain matters over time. I’m going to be for myself. I’m going to try to do little things everyday that will build a better brain or other aspects of my life gradually over time.”
Mindful self-awareness I’ve talked about.
Seeing the world clearly. I think Google has helped enormously here and it can continue to help in the future particularly by appreciating the depth of threat reactivity; the depth of the paranoid trance and the insidiousness of it.
Taking life less personally; appreciating increasingly that it’s not really about me and one particular practice which is the chapter in my book, Buddha’s Brain, and will probably be very central to the book I write after the one I’m writing now, is taking in the good.
And so if we could I’d like to do a little practice here with you about taking in the good, because if you think about it continually the brain is taking in the bad, remember? It’s like Velcro for negative experiences; Teflon for positive ones. It has dedicated — [snapping fingers] snap, snap, snap systems that just suck any kind of negative information into the brain.
Think about a hundred things happen in the course of the day, right? Seventy are pretty good, 28 are neutral, 2 are kind of sucky.
What are the ones you think about as you fall asleep?
Usually it’s the stuff that was a drag, right? And that’s the brain. It just wants to grab hold of that. That’s why using mindful awareness for about 20, 30 seconds in a row can actually build out neural structure in a much more positive way.
So if you like, let’s do it together. And you don’t have to do it, but let’s give it a crack.
So first off, first step, pick a positive fact. It could be. . . I particularly like picking a positive fact about a good quality inside yourself. Where ever you go, there you are, right? Or you could think about a good condition in the world or a good event recently; someone was nice to you, some good thing happened.
And then let yourself really feel it.
All kinds of good facts occur, but we don’t register them. They don’t move the needle, but in this case we’re helping ourselves because we’re on our own side to let our self feel good.
It’s a private act; no one needs to know you’re doing it. There are lots of taboos about feeling good, feeling happy, you can hide it behind your face, but let yourself feel good and then in particular in the second step savor it for 15, 20, 30 seconds in a row.
Stay with feeling good for a quarter of a minute.
And as you do it, sense and intend that this good experience is gradually sifting down into you. It’s sinking in and even perhaps filling a hole in your heart.
Gradually soothing, even replacing perhaps old places of pain. Or at a minimum simply being a moment of good experience.
And that’s it.
Now, any single time you do this won’t make much difference, half a dozen times a day, continually looking for opportunities to take in the good to make your brain like Velcro for positive experiences will make it like Teflon for negative ones.
And over time, everyone I’ve ever worked with whose done this within a week or two people start feeling different, within a few weeks and certainly a few months quite radically different.
This is also a fantastic method for children, particularly kids that either the spirited or anxious, rigid ends of the temperamental spectrum.
Jack rabbits and turtles, right? They’re all normal. There’s no disorder there in jack rabbititis; it’s a normal temperamental variation, but it’s tough to be a jack rabbit in a turtle culture in some ways, certainly in turtle schools.
So, anyway taking in the good for a few moments just before bed is a great way to fill the heart of kids. And I’ll use metaphors with them like putting a jewel in their heart and so forth.
It naturally comes up of course, why do this?
Which is an interesting question, like what a taboo right there on feeling good. Benefits of positive emotions are kind of a proxy for the benefits of taking in the good.
There’s a lot of research on positive emotions. I’ll just leave that slide there for a moment.
But positive emotions, wow, have fantastic benefits. Happiness really is skillful means. If you take a look at my Website, wisebrain.org you’ll see the slide sets for a number of talks and one of the nice things about positive emotions is they steady the mind because they do it in various ways having to do with dopamine and working memory, but it’s a great way to support concentration and productivity to encourage positive emotion .
Also it comes up whether it’s selfish to feel happy. And I think Bertrand Russell had a fantastic line here. He pointed out that as he conceived of it right, “The good life is a happy one because happy people are good people.”
And there’s a lot of research that shows that, with some significant exceptions, people who have basic well being, who already have a sense of overflowingness inside themselves, are more inclined to offer benefit to other people.
So, from the standpoint obviously of productivity and reducing turnover and anything like that, whether it’s at Google or any company in the world, helping people feel happy at work is a great way to promote productivity and generosity and teamwork and team building with other people.
Moving to an end here and then hoping to have a few more minutes for questions and discussion at the end.
I also took a look at specific factors that are, may not be so obvious for activating the responsive mode of the brain for each one of these three fundamental systems.
In the approach system for example, focusing on gladness and gratitude; fantastic. People do things like the three blessings exercise at the end of the day. They just list three things to be grateful for; take half a minute to focus on them.
That has had amazing results for such a simple intervention.
And giving one’s self over to one’s best purposes is another way to activate the approach system in a context of prior contentment and wisdom.
The affiliating system, one I want to call out there is the last one the idea of acting with unilateral virtue. In other words, living by your own code of integrity and good conduct regardless of what the other person does.
In other words, not getting involved in this kind of Mexican standoff. I do couples counseling as well as other things where people basically say, “I’ll treat you well if you treat me well. You go first.”
And we know where that really gets us.
On the other hand, if you act with unilateral virtue, it makes you feel good right off the top; it also gives you a sense of initiative; and it puts you on the high moral ground so that after a few days or weeks even you can then say very rightfully to the other person, “I stopped being a jerk. I’m giving you what you want. I’m lining off your reasonable complaints. Alright, how about me?”
And then last with regard to the avoid system, calming the body in general. As soon as we get activated in the stress response system we’re primed to go negative because those systems are disposed and lean toward negative responsiveness.
So, activating a calming, soothing response whenever we feel stressed or upset is a good basic default.
And then I would say last, tolerate risking a dreaded experience. We live small. We live in a way to avoid experiences we dread, and then that becomes the new normal and after awhile we start to forget about it.
It’s a little bit like these tigers that are in cages, speaking of tigers. They remove the cage because they’ve built a park around them, but the tiger will not cross the line that’s written, that’s painted there on the cement because they still live within that box. They still presume that limitation.
The trick is to risk the dreaded experience instead of avoiding it.
In other words, put one’s neck out in a meeting; tell someone you love them; open up to some feelings and see that it goes well which it usually does.
In effect, this is in the traditional phrase, “taking the fruit as the path.”
In other words, taking the end as the means. Taking the end of calm, contentment, and caring are here in this, and I reordered it, gladness, love and peace, taking that as the method as well as the destination. In, for example, literally I found myself increasing; I just named these three words to myself. I did before I came down here to give this talk which was making me nervous I said, “Rick, gladness, love, peace, okay, good. In the zone. Okay. Good place.”
Whatever works for you to get in your zone, different things work for different people. All the great teachers have offered huge tool boxes with a diversity of tools.
Neurological diversity is the most critically important and fundamental and substantive kind of diversity there really is.
And so, that’s why I think is really important to find one’s own way.
That gives us a fundamental choice, right? Reactive mode which is the ordinary lot, characterized tries by suffering, ignorance and harm. Or the responsive mode; the natural state of the brain which can see through Paper Tiger Paranoia and can be gradually cultivated with self-directed neuroplasticity.
And that’s the opportunity for us all today.
It’s historically unprecedented; it’s grounded in science; papers are coming out everyday basically with new opportunities to figure out how to reverse engineer the brain and each one of us can do this in our own lives with benefits that ripple throughout the entire planet.
So, I thank you for your attention. It’s a great privilege to be here.
Thank you, very much. Question or comment for the last minute? One or, one? Yes, no?
Question: I have a question about I’ve heard that a number of traditions anyway say that if you’re trying to make a change in your consciousness when a point comes, the point comes when you can actually make a shift, there will be an opposite, there will be a resistance, there will be a pull from where you came from that will try to keep the status quo. How does that, is that an actual something that happens in the brain that tries to keep us in our previously more contractive consciousness?
Rick Hanson: I think that’s true in two ways and wonderfully untrue in a third, alright? First, the brain is a giant association network . Everything’s connected to everything else. So if we have a breakthrough over here we still have that old learning over there. People say to me sometimes, “I feel guilty that I’m still upset about my childhood.” Right? Well of course you are. The brain learned. It’s designed to learn and that learning persists until it gradually is replaced or overcome, first.
Second, it’s very interesting how the brain is organized.
It’s very much basically yin and yang, in effect, on stop and go. Inhibit or fire, that’s the way the brain are organized.
And I think a lot of knowledge structures in the brain are organized around figuring ground or something in its thesis antithesis in effect.
So, when you break through in one area or you think about something very often the opposite comes up. For example, think about something that makes you feel proud of yourself; pause. Very often something will come up that’s associated with self-doubt.
So what you’re saying I think is natural.
That said, very often people will have a breakthrough and they get a release, they’re done with it. They saw through it; they changed; they got it.
I love the line from practice, “ Gradual cultivation, sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening .”
So very often what we have, is we have awakenings; we have insights; we realize something. Then we’ve got to cultivate around it; we’ve got to back fill; we’ve got to build an infrastructure which then enables the next awakening ; the next insight; the next breakthrough; the next release to be even deeper.
But something I’ve really come to see, honestly, I’ve been a therapist a long time; it’s made me more compassionate, but it’s made me tough as nails in this sense that most people will not do the work.
But if you do the work, the sky’s the limit in the changes you can make in your mind, your brain, and your life, and in this world.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Andrew Yee